Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama: Death Knell to the Southern Strategy

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and integration in the southern states of the United States began to take hold via federal fiat, the Republican hatched a plan gain control of the White House (and keep it). Generally attributed to Richard Nixon's run in 1968, the Southern Strategy was a Republican ploy to push newly enfranchised Blacks to the Democratic party while enticing conservative Democratic whites to join the Republican Party, thus creating a solid cultural bloc that would elect four presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43) over the next 40 years. During that stretch, only 2 Democratic presidents - both Southerners (Carter from Georgia and Clinton from Arkansas) - would gain the White House.

In a 1970 New York Times article, Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips said:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

Even as the approach was applied nationally, until the early 1960's, the Southern US was home to a majority of Black Americans. "States' rights" and cultural issues such as gay marriage (bans were on ballot of 3 states in 2008), abortion, gun ownership, and religion were hot button wedge issues that were adopted into the platform of the Republicans. By playing on ignorance and fears of Black power exacerbated white flight from urban centers to growing suburbs and exurbs, and also fueled white flight from the Democratic Party, which was the predominant party in the South until the mid-1960's.

The candidacy of Barack Obama hinged on his running not as a Black candidate, but as just a candidate for President. If you notice, his campaign went to great lengths to keep the Civil Rights icons (Jackson, Young, Lewis, etc.) at arm's length, while securing votes in states that had near negligible Black populations (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire, etc.). Obama ran a strong southern campaign during the primaries, mopping up Hillary Clinton in every southern state except Arkansas... but then again, the Democratic Party is heavily Black in the south. He didn't do quite as well against Clinton in areas with similar southern demographics in the north (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, etc.).

Along the road to winning the Democratic primary, the Obama campaign registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, new progressive voters: young, educated, upwardly mobile. These new voters would become a new base as he pushed the line of battleground states into the south! The new voters in Virginia and North Carolina tilted those states blue (Virginia had not gone for a Democrat since LBJ in 1964). Newly registered voters almost turned red state Georgia blue (Obama lost the state by only 4 percentage points) and the US Senate seat was thrown into a runoff, something that was unheard of only four years ago.

Two weeks before the election, the American Prospect uses Obama in North Carolina as an example that the southern strategy is dead:

In less than two weeks, we may well see the election in which the Southern Strategy -- the strategic doctrine that has underpinned the rise of the Republican Party over the past four decades -- dies an inglorious death. Since 1968, Republicans have exploited the racial and cultural resentments of Southern whites brilliantly. Their control of the White House for 24 of the last 40 years, and of Congress from 1994 through 2006, was rooted in the overwhelming support they won from Southern whites.

The strategy was premised on the South's distinct identity -- that it was home to a more rural, less educated, more militaristic, more churchgoing, less tolerant, more racist white population than the nation's other regions. It has worked like a charm in areas where Southern backwardness has been immutable. The problem for the GOP is that modernity, in the form of internal development, greater racial diversity, and migration from -- oh, the horror -- the North, has finally begun to alter the political identity of key Southern states.

Clearly, that's what has happened to Virginia, in which the southward creep of an increasingly cosmopolitan Washington, D.C. into the Virginia burbs (both sub- and ex-) has altered the state's racial and cultural make-up. Since 2000, Republicans have fared well in what Sarah Palin termed the "real Virginia," only to see their numbers dwarfed by the successively bigger margins racked up by such Democrats as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb in the northern part of the state.

The thought of Virginia, which has not gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, casting its electoral votes for Barack Obama is mind-boggling enough. But North Carolina? Could a black presidential candidate carry a southern state that hasn't had a northern metropolis disrupt its demographics? Could a relatively unknown Democratic senate candidate unseat a nationally known Republican incumbent?

By looking at the Electoral Shift Map (as it appears in the New York Times), one can see that the entire country, save a swath of counties that stretches down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains into Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, has shifted (and voted) to the left (blue). The red portions of the map tells the story of the part of the country that was left behind during the boom of the 1990's, is less racially diverse, less sophisticated, and far less educated than the blue regions to the north and east (the red parts of Georgia are in the largely white North Georgia mountains and the southern plain).

The New York Times appears to agree that the area of the south that is still a part of the Southern Strategy appears to be shrinking before it dies on the vine. Some parts of the south were more fervently red for John McCain than they were for Bush back in 2004, but one would have to travel into the deepest hollows of the traditional south to find them... that would be Palin Country! The story goes down to Vernon, Alabama which sits on the Alabama-Mississippi border where they don't cotton to uppity-Negroes with funny sounding names and Muslim sounding middle names. These people don't think too highly of Ivy League graduates and have very clear ideas about why certain folk should stay in their place!

Most of these people don't like Abraham Lincoln, think they got a relative who died fighting for the Lost Cause back in '65 (1865, that is), and still think that Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing more than a rabble rouser who got what was coming to him.

The state of affairs in the Deep South and how Virginia and North Carolina turned blue, as reported by the New York Times:

VERNON, Ala. — Fear of the politician with the unusual name and look did not end with last Tuesday’s vote in this rural red swatch where buck heads and rifles hang on the wall. This corner of the Deep South still resonates with negative feelings about the race of President-elect Barack Obama.

What may have ended on Election Day, though, is the centrality of the South to national politics. By voting so emphatically for Senator John McCain over Mr. Obama — supporting him in some areas in even greater numbers than they did President Bush — voters from Texas to South Carolina and Kentucky may have marginalized their region for some time to come, political experts say.

The region’s absence from Mr. Obama’s winning formula means it “is becoming distinctly less important,” said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. “The South has moved from being the center of the political universe to being an outside player in presidential politics.”

One reason for that is that the South is no longer a solid voting bloc. Along the Atlantic Coast, parts of the “suburban South,” notably Virginia and North Carolina, made history last week in breaking from their Confederate past and supporting Mr. Obama. Those states have experienced an influx of better educated and more prosperous voters in recent years, pointing them in a different political direction than states farther west, like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Appalachian sections of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Southern counties that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated and whiter, a statistical analysis by The New York Times shows. Mr. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of 410 counties that runs from New York to Mississippi. Many of those counties, rural and isolated, have been less exposed to the diversity, educational achievement and economic progress experienced by more prosperous areas.

The increased turnout in the South’s so-called Black Belt, or old plantation-country counties, was visible in the results, but it generally could not make up for the solid white support for Mr. McCain. Alabama, for example, experienced a heavy black turnout and voted slightly more Democratic than in 2004, but the state over all gave 60 percent of its vote to Mr. McCain. (Arkansas, however, doubled the margin of victory it gave to the Republican over 2004.)

Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.

That could spell the end of the so-called Southern strategy, the doctrine that took shape under President Richard M. Nixon in which national elections were won by co-opting Southern whites on racial issues. And the Southernization of American politics — which reached its apogee in the 1990s when many Congressional leaders and President Bill Clinton were from the South — appears to have ended.

“I think that’s absolutely over,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist who argued prophetically that the Democrats could win national elections without the South.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have “become a Southernized party,” said Mr. Schaller, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They have completely marginalized themselves to a mostly regional party,” he said, pointing out that nearly half of the current Republican House delegation is now Southern.

Merle Black, an expert on the region’s politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said the Republican Party went too far in appealing to the South, alienating voters elsewhere.

“They’ve maxed out on the South,” he said, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.”

Even the Democrats made use of the Southern strategy, as the party’s two presidents in the last 40 years, Jimmy Carter and Mr. Clinton, were Southerners whose presence on the ticket served to assuage regional anxieties. Mr. Obama has now proved it is no longer necessary to include a Southerner on the national ticket — to quiet racial fears, for example — in order to win, in the view of analysts.

Several Southern states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, have voted for the winner in presidential elections for decades. No more. And Mr. Obama’s race appears to have been the critical deciding factor in pushing ever greater numbers of white Southerners away from the Democrats.

Here in Alabama, where Mr. McCain won 60.4 percent of the vote in his best Southern showing, he had the support of nearly 9 in 10 whites, according to exit polls, a figure comparable to other Southern states. Alabama analysts pointed to the persistence of traditional white Southern attitudes on race as the deciding factor in Mr. McCain’s strong margin. Mr. Obama won in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham, and in the Black Belt, but he made few inroads elsewhere.

“Race continues to play a major role in the state,” said Glenn Feldman, a historian at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “Alabama, unfortunately, continues to remain shackled to the bonds of yesterday.”

David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, pointed out that the 18 percent share of whites that voted for Senator John Kerry in 2004 was almost cut in half for Mr. Obama.

“There’s no other explanation than race,” he said.

In Arkansas, which had among the nation’s largest concentration of counties increasing their support for the Republican candidate over the 2004 vote, “there’s a clear indication that racial conservatism was a component of that shift away from the Democrat,” said Jay Barth, a political scientist in the state.

Race was a strong subtext in post-election conversations across the socioeconomic spectrum here in Vernon, the small, struggling seat of Lamar County on the Mississippi border.

One white woman said she feared that blacks would now become more “aggressive,” while another volunteered that she was bothered by the idea of a black man “over me” in the White House.

Mr. McCain won 76 percent of the county’s vote, about five percentage points more than Mr. Bush did, because “a lot more people came out, hoping to keep Obama out,” Joey Franks, a construction worker, said in the parking lot of the Shop and Save.

Mr. Franks, who voted for Mr. McCain, said he believed that “over 50 percent voted against Obama for racial reasons,” adding that in his own case race mattered “a little bit. That’s in my mind.”

Many people made it clear that they were deeply apprehensive about Mr. Obama, though some said they were hoping for the best.

“I think any time you have someone elected president of the United States with a Muslim name, whether they are white or black, there are some very unsettling things,” George W. Newman, a director at a local bank and the former owner of a trucking business, said over lunch at Yellow Creek Fish and Steak.

Don Dollar, the administrative assistant at City Hall, said bitterly that anyone not upset with Mr. Obama’s victory should seek religious forgiveness.

“This is a community that’s supposed to be filled with a bunch of Christian folks,” he said. “If they’re not disappointed, they need to be at the altar.”

Customers of Bill Pennington, a barber whose downtown shop is decorated with hunting and fishing trophies, were “scared because they heard he had a Muslim background,” Mr. Pennington said over the country music on the radio. “Over and over again I heard that.”

Mr. Obama remains an unknown quantity in this corner of the South, and there are deep worries about the changes he will bring.

“I am concerned,” Gail McDaniel, who owns a cosmetics business, said in the parking lot of the Shop and Save. “The abortion thing bothers me. Same-sex marriage.”

“I think there are going to be outbreaks from blacks,” she added. “From where I’m from, this is going to give them the right to be more aggressive.”

As the United States moves to the center and away from divisive politics, the two major parties will have to deal with a demographic shift that changed the complexion of the 2008 presidential election. Even the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had an article concerning the viability of the Southern Strategy in light of the eventual Obama win. The AJC article had an interesting twist on how Gov. Sarah Palin would affect voting in the South based on the fact that she is a candidate tailor-made for the Southern Strategy (abortion, religion, guns, and states' rights)!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One of the unintended consequences, as predicted by plezWorld, was that there would be an almost immediate knee jerk reaction to an Obama win to begin the rapid destruction of affirmative action in the United States. Exactly one week after President-Elect Obama obliterated the Southern Strategy, right-wing opinion is doing exactly as I predicted. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece that calls for re-examination of the Voting Rights Act (and its 2006 update) since Barack Obama proved that race-based Congressional districts are no longer necessary, since it was proved last week that white people will vote for a Black person.

Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, "Racial Gerrymandering is Unnecessary":

The conventional wisdom among voting-rights advocates and political scientists has been that whites will not vote for black candidates in significant numbers. Hence the need for federal protection in the form of race-based districts that create safe black constituencies where black candidates are sure to win.

But the myth of racist white voters was destroyed by this year's presidential election.

Although six out of 10 votes cast for Barack Obama came from whites, he did not win an overall majority of white votes -- he lost among this group 43%-55%. But no Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 has won the majority of whites. The reason is simple: Just as African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately Democrats, whites are now disproportionately Republicans.

Remember Mr. Obama's weak performance with working-class white voters during the primaries? Many speculated at the time, and right up to Nov. 4, that those voters who pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton would defect to John McCain.

Not so. Mr. Obama's 43% share of the white vote in the general election was actually a tad larger than that of John Kerry in 2004 (41%) or Al Gore in 2000 (42%).

So what happened to all those "racists" or "rednecks" that John Murtha spoke of so recently? If there had been that many of them, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia and Florida would have gone the other way, and we would have a President-elect McCain today. Racism is the Sherlock Holmes dog that did not bark in the night.

Consider Iowa, with only a miniscule African-American population. The 5% of voters who said race was the most important factor in their choice of whom to vote for backed Mr. Obama 54% to 45%. Or consider Minnesota and Wisconsin, also overwhelmingly white, where Mr. Obama's lead was 18% and 21% respectively among the 5% to 7% of voters who made race their highest priority.

These results do not mean we now live in a color-blind society. But we can say that the doors of electoral opportunity in America are open to all.

The aggressive federal interference in state and local districting decisions enshrined in the Voting Rights Act should therefore be reconsidered. That statute, adopted in 1965 and strengthened by Congress in the summer of 2006, demands race-driven districting maps to protect black candidates from white competition. That translates into an effort to create black representation proportional to the black population in the jurisdiction.

That law gave federal courts and the Justice Department what are, in effect, extraordinary war powers to combat the evil of ongoing Southern black disfranchisement. But blacks are no longer disfranchised -- by any definition.

In fact, racially gerrymandered districts are an impediment to political integration at all levels of government. Herding African-Americans into "max-black" districts forces black candidates to run in heavily gerrymandered districts. The candidates who emerge from those districts are, unsurprisingly, typically not the most well-positioned to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate.

Black candidates can win in multi-ethnic and even majority-white districts with color-blind voting. Mr. Obama should make it a priority to give more aspiring black politicians the opportunity to stand before white (and Latino and Asian and other ethnic) voters. He won, so can they.

American voters have turned a racial corner. The law should follow in their footsteps.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Read the American Prospect article about the death of the Southern Strategy.

Read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about Sarah Palin and the Southern Strategy.

Read the New York Times article about shrinking geography of the Southern Strategy.

Read the New York Times article about the electoral shift in the 2008 election.

Read Andrew Sullivan's article in The Atlantic about the realities of the Southern Strategy.

Read the Wall Street Journal article about how racial gerrymandering is wrong.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


BARACK OBAMA ran a flawless campaign that left the remnants of the southern strategy in tatters. by concentrating on creating and energizing a "new electorate," the Obama campaign broke the generational and cultural hold that the Republican party had on the "backwards" south. by shrinking its geography, states that for the past 40 years would only go with a republican or a southern democrat now saw their electorate leaning blue.

if Obama can marshall the congress to do his bidding on just a few of his initiatives, these remaining pockets of the southern strategy will surely fall by the next election. should he fail, 2012 will yield an optimum opportunity for a resurgent sarah palin and her brand of right-wing fanatism to take hold and we could witness the rebirth of the southern strategy for the republicans. Obama's hold on the region is that tenuous.

the election of BARACK OBAMA was the death knell for the southern strategy... for the time being!


NC Sully said...

I believe your summary of this is the truth. I believe it didn't work in this election. I am one of the northerers who have move south(massachusetts to north carolina). Living in the mountains here in western Carolina I heard more co-workers and people I talked to say they were not voting for Obama because he was "black"(my word not theirs). My niece even told us at the dinner table that he would be letting the terrorist in the back door if he was elected. I personally voted libertarian because the Democrats and Republicans have become pretty much the same party, for banks and business and not for the people. The only way Obama and the democrats can keep the southern stragedy dead is to keep the voter turnout as excited and coming out in their favor.

plez... said...

the southern strategy was incumbent on using various wedge issues as a smoke screen for race-based decisions on national politics (abortion rights, gay rights & marriage, gun rights, religious intolernace, etc.), without realizing that most people (Blacks included) would prefer to have fewer abortions AND believe in the 2nd amendment.

personally, i take offense at any type of moral judgement or legislation that smacks of intolerance, be that sexual orientation or religious. by playing up the ignorance (or uneducated intolerance) of their demographics, the Republicans were able to secure the South for over 40 years. it is quite possible that a better informed electorate will be able to see through the smoke screen and make policy decisions rather than emotion-based decisions.

if you are a Libertarian, then you are not swayed by emotional appeals and make your decisions based on policy... i say that a Libertarian is a Republican with a college degree! *smile*